While in February we tend to have a conversation as to whether Jews should celebrate Valentine’s Day, we may miss the fact that Judaism itself does have a day celebrating romantic love-Tu B’av, the fifteenth (“Tu” = 15) of the month of Av, which this year falls this week on August 11.
Tu B’Av is first mentioned in the Mishnah, tractate Ta’anit: “There were no better days for the people of Israel than the Fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur, since on these days the daughters of Jerusalem go out dressed in white and dance in the vineyards. What they were saying: Young man, consider who you choose (to be your wife).”
Later Talmudic interpretation would connect Tu B’Av to the grape harvest and other events, but it was the connection to this event of the matchmaking among the grapevines that gave the day its meaning of love and led to the development, especially in contemporary Israel, a holiday much like our Valentine’s Day.
The language of love is not unfamiliar to us as Jews. One of our central biblical commandments tells us to “Love our neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) The centerpiece of the liturgy, the Shema (also a biblical passage) says we must “love God with all our heart, with all our soul, will all our might.” This love speaks of the fidelity, trust and responsibility that comes from being in a covenantal relationship with each other and with God.
Which is not different than what we seek in our romantic relationships. When we find someone with whom we fall in love, we seek a connection that is founded upon fidelity, trust and mutual responsibility. The challenge has always been how we find and maintain these relationships.
I recently read a book called Love Illuminated by Daniel Jones, the editor of the “Modern Love” column in the New York Times. The column, which runs in the Sunday edition of the paper, features personal essays, reminisces and observations written by contributors about the many manifestations and challenges of love. Jones, having read nearly 50,000 submissions, sets out to analyze and break down what it means to find, nurture and keep love in our modern lives.
One observation Jones makes is that increasingly taboos and societal-imposed limits on who one can marry are dropping away (note the rate of Jewish intermarriage) while at the same time the internet is making the number of people one can meet much greater. And while this freedom to marry and large pool of potential mates makes finding a partner easier, Jones notes, it also increases the pressure on making the “right choice.”
What is interesting is the parallel to our spiritual lives.
Like in love, we are spiritual free agents today. Rather than just follow the practices of our upbringing, we seek our own connection and relationship with the divine. And much in the same way the internet has changed the way we meet people, so too has it changed how we learn, where we receive information, how we create spiritual community and how we form our identity. Like in love, this presents an opportunity and challenge-we have so many ways to make meaning, so how do we know which is the “right way”?
We each must find our own answer, but we again can take a cue from Jones’s book in which he writes, “love is for suckers, not for skeptics.” In other words, those who seek love need to be vulnerable, seeking, daring, diligent, self-limiting and self-critical. So too for those who seek meaning. Be open, and it will find you. Something to reflect on, and celebrate, this Tu B’Av.